Heartland Health Training Camp Preview: Exterior Offensive Line

Posted Jul 25, 2012

Three questions surrounding the Chiefs exterior offensive linemen heading into training camp

1) How heavy is Eric Winston’s impact?

There is no question the Chiefs came away winners after Eric Winston was unexpectedly released as a salary cap casualty by the Houston Texans.

Winston is regarded by many as the best right tackle in professional football. Right tackle was also regarded by many as Kansas City’s biggest offseason need.

Barry Richardson – a former sixth-round draft pick who started 32 consecutive games at tackle from 2010-11 – became a whipping boy for fans and media as Kansas City’s offense struggled from the start and produced its lowest scoring output since the strike-shortened 1982 campaign.

In addition, the Chiefs rushing game was non-existent when it tried to run right, averaging a paltry 2.3 yards per attempt. Richardson also officially allowed 5.0 sacks, committed eight penalties and yielded a number of quarterback pressures.

For the reasons above, Winston’s signing was celebrated loudly in Kansas City and beyond.

While pointing a load of blame on Richardson might have been the easy and popular thing to do, it also ignored several things that occurred just one season prior.

Running to the right in 2010 allowed Chiefs ball carriers to average only 3.5 yards per carry, which ranked 22nd in the NFL. Richardson allowed the same amount of sacks (5.0) and committed just one fewer penalty (7).

Richardson was essentially the same player, yet the Chiefs put together an offensive unit that was efficient in the passing game, led the NFL in rushing and won the AFC West. Injuries, turnovers, you name it – there was more to Kansas City’s offensive struggles last season than a struggling right tackle.

Winston isn’t a one-man miracle worker, but he can surely play a big role in getting the Chiefs offense back on track in 2012.

In 2010, the Texans led the NFL averaging 7.3 yards per carry when rushing toward Winston’s right edge. Last year, that average dipped by 2.1 yards per carry but it was still good enough to rank as the NFL’s third-best mark.

Effectively running the football is the key to Kansas City’s offensive success. Winston’s arrival, a healthy Jamaal Charles and the addition of Peyton Hillis will play a critical role in re-elevating the Chiefs rushing attack.

2) How fast can Donald Stephenson develop?

Donald Stephenson is living the dream. He’s a Kansas City kid drafted by and playing for his hometown team.

Stephenson grew up attending Chiefs games while developing into one of the region’s top high school offensive line prospects. Oklahoma noticed and took a flier on developing the athletically-gifted big man.

It took Stephenson two years to crack the Sooners starting lineup, but the wait paid off when he became Oklahoma’s’ starting left tackle as a junior.

Stephenson enters his professional career in similar fashion. He has loads of potential, but needs to refine some fundamentals before he can be relied upon in the Chiefs lineup.

“Donald Stephenson is still a guy that has only started two years at Oklahoma, and he has the ability to play both left and right tackle,” Pioli said after selecting Stephenson in the third round of this year’s draft.  “He is not as advanced as (second-round pick) Jeff Allen is and doesn’t have as much experience. That’s obviously why we took Jeff before Donald.

“We want to have depth. We don’t expect them to come in and beat guys out right away, but they’ll be coming in and competing against other tackles.”

In a perfect world, Stephenson will develop into the Chiefs tackle-in-waiting behind starters Branden Albert and Eric Winston. His experience playing both tackle positions gives him the necessary background to become a swing tackle while he gains NFL experience.

But will the role as Kansas City’s swing-man come as a rookie?

3) If not Stephenson, then who?

The Chiefs are set in their starters at offensive tackle in Branden Albert and Eric Winston. After that, it appears to be an open competition for the number three job.

Remember this. Last season was the first year the Chiefs got through a complete season with both tackles starting all 16 games since Willie Roaf and John Tait did so in 2003.

That means the competition for the number three job is significant even if Albert and Winston are set as starting bookends.

One candidate is athletic rookie Donald Stephenson. His credentials are highlighted above, but GM Scott Pioli also noted that the third-round pick has some developing to do.

The same can be said about 6’8” second-year man David Mims. A project out of Virginia Union last season, Mims turned heads as an undrafted rookie with his stature. But he also possessed raw technique and needed to add strength, so he was assigned to the practice squad after training camp.

Mims received a late-season promotion to the 53-man roster, but did not appear in any games. Has he developed quickly enough to win the number three job?

The Chiefs also have several young players who’ve bounced around the offensive line in Darryl Harris and Lucas Patterson. Maybe one of them can find a home behind Albert and Winston?

Then, there’s always second-round pick Jeff Allen. The rookie out of Illinois has played left guard since arriving in Kansas City, but opened 47 consecutive games as a tackle at the University of Illinois.

There’s also a chance that the primary backup is currently on another roster. Kansas City claimed Ryan O’Callaghan off waivers from New England in 2009 and did the same with Steve Maneri last season. Maneri has since shifted to tight end.

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